An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge by Ambrose Bierce

A sly play between reality and the imagination is the function that operates in Bierce’s tragic American Civil War tale. Bierce touches upon notions of the afterlife yet embodies the harshness of Atheism as he draws on the speculation of brain activity once living has ceased. What is sought is a heaven, a relief from the terror of being executed, yet what is found is the dividing spectral line between the living and the dead. Instead of capitalizing on the spiritual ideal, Bierce presents the reality of life as he sees it, a biological phenomenon fully equipped with the unconscious ability for the brain and body to cope with death.

The use of ekphrasis during varying moments of the narrative provide hints to Peyton Farquhar’s unusual experience, that once the rope had accidentally broke, the circumstances he encounters are not altogether grounded in reality. In addition to these effects of spatial suspension, focalization works not only to immerse the audience into his terrifying ordeal, but literally, scenes and objects that come into Peyton’s view are focalized in ways that seem uncharacteristic, a way for Bierce to again hint, something out of the ordinary is occuring. These devices become a part of Bierce’s narrative way of separating the psychological from the realistic, but he does not rely on a simple assortment to get his message across.

Before learning the true nature of Peyton’s demise, the narrator utilizes language meant to suggest that what is happening may or may not be a part of the narrative’s reality. Upon first reading, an ambiguous phrase pronounces the man dead, yet the phrase is followed by a sentence that renders him “awakened–ages later; it seemed…” That Peyton is disillusioned to the point that he feels alienated from the current place in time is a reference to his psychological state. For a man who has been lucky enough to have his life spared, he feels like time has been propelled into the future. The jump from death, to life, to “ages later” acts as a creative device in which Bierce attempts to separate psychological time from real time.

As the narrative proceeds and Peyton makes his dramatic escape through the creek, he feels like he “had been caught in a vortex…” While this depiction fits his physical state as he negotiates his hectic situation in the water, a variation on the meaning of a vortex offers the notion that his state of mind is operating on a different level. A second reading lends credence to the idea that Peyton’s psychological state is being sucked into the vortex of death.

When Peyton begins to approach the realms of safety from the men who are trying to kill him, he falls “asleep while walking,” but the narrator suggests that he is recovering from a “delirium.” A delirium is generally associated with a state of mind that is detached from reality. Because this is a state that Peyton is possibly recovering from, Bierce succeeds in positing the idea that the escape might never have actually happened.

In all three examples, the figurative language is discreet so that the effect on the narrative is subtle. Peyton’s escape is perceived as a charged reaction to his sudden change of luck, but through the course of the read, a curious feeling emerges with the language that triggers abstract ideas in mind of the reader. The effect works to evoke a surreal sensation, as though escaping under conditions of intense fear and energy can produce these altered states of mind when actually, the event only occurred within his mind.